At the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter, there is only one place you can buy copies of J.K. Rowling's books about the boy wizard.
Although shops abound throughout the attraction at Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure, you'll find the seven volumes about Harry's years at Hogwarts School only at Filch's Emporium of Confiscated Goods, encountered after visitors debark from the major ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. In other words, at the end of the line.
At first it seems strange that the books that created the world millions of readers have fallen in love with would be so scarce here. But it makes sense if you think about it: Harry Potter wouldn't be reading Harry Potter books.
The intent was to make the Wizarding World of Harry Potter "a seamless immersive experience," says Mark Woodbury, president of Universal Creative. Rowling, who he says has collaborated extensively with Universal in developing the project, "created all this content. Warner Brothers created the visuals. To take something from pure literature to film to physical experience is amazing."
Universal Creative vice president Thierry Coup says, "Rowling invented this. The filmmakers invented it. We were not trying to create our own experience."
The idea, both men say, was to let fans of the books and movies — and there are few fans more fanatical than Harry Potter fans — walk right into them.
After five years of planning and construction of the 20-acre attraction, the gate is open, and I think fans of the book will be enchanted.
Their first view will be down a crooked street through Hogsmeade, the wizard town near Hogwarts School. Most of the places in the books' Hogsmeade are here, except Madam Puddifoot's Tea Shop and the Shrieking Shack (tough to make werewolves family friendly).
On the right is the Hogwarts Express, its red engine gleaming and steaming, just arrived from Platform 9 ¾. On one stretch of the street, the storefronts are just sets, although intricately detailed ones, many animated — Hermione Granger's mauve ball gown is displayed in the window of Gladrags Wizardwear, a cello plays itself at Dominic Maestro.
Most of the shops are ready for business, though. (And if you need cash, there's a Gringott's ATM.) Honeydukes sweet shop dazzles with goodies fans will recognize, including vast amounts of those dangerous Bertie Bott's Every-Flavour Beans, ranging from custard and rum to compost and toenails. When I bought a box, the cashier warned me away from a sweet-looking rose-pink bean. "It's fish."
Flying off the shelves were chocolate frogs, packaged in ornate blue and gold boxes. Each life-sized, 814-calorie frog comes with a holographic trading card portraying one of the four founders of Hogwarts — the first time their images have been seen (although you'll meet them vividly at Hogwarts).
Fans whose mouths have watered over those endless butterbeers chugged by young wizards can now sample the drink. Universal is tight-lipped about its ingredients, but it does taste buttery, like shortbread crossed with cream soda. Tooth-achingly sweet, though no more so than the average cola, it comes in liquid or frozen form. Is it what Rowling imagined? After tasting a number of versions, she approved this one.
Also available is pumpkin juice, in a bottle with a plastic pumpkin cap. I didn't try that one but did sample the excellent Hog's Head Brew served in the pub of that name. A coppery Scottish-style ale, it went well with a lunch of shepherd's pie.
On the wall behind the bar (whose shelves bear a jar of doxy eggs and bottles of firewhiskey) is a huge, multitusked boar's head that occasionally wiggles its nose, glares and grunts loudly. "He always goes off when somebody tips," the bartender said.
In this version of Hogsmeade, the Hog's Head shares a building with Three Broomsticks, which serves as the attraction's sit-down restaurant. Alan Gilmore, who is the art director for the theme park and also for the Harry Potter films, says it's the only place on the site that has not yet appeared in a movie. "We were a little bit ahead of the film team on that," he says. He and Stuart Craig, production designer for the films, knew they wanted "a large, barnlike medieval place," Gilmore says. "The one in the film will be a more intimate space, more quirky. They didn't have to deal with having a kitchen." Look for its enormous white fireplace, covered with mounted antlers, in the upcoming films, and at the park, watch for the owl's shadow sweeping across the fireplace and listen for the house elf dropping a stack of dishes upstairs.
Gilmore says that one place Rowling especially wanted to have in the park is Ollivanders. In the books, it's located in Diagon Alley, the wizard shopping mall in London, so this version is a bit different, a similar store run by "one of (Ollivanders') associates." At the wonderfully dusty, overstuffed wand shop, visitors get a special spell of immersion. Groups of 20 or so are admitted to the company of a costumed wandkeeper, who chooses one person to be matched to a wand. "The wand chooses the wizard," he reminds as he questions the chosen one (usually a youngster).
After several tries at casting spells — one boy's "Accio ladder!" command sent boxes jumping off shelves instead, and the wandkeeper said drily, "This is not your wand" — a light shines and music plays to indicate the right one has been found.
Meticulous detail is everywhere. Ride the easy roller coaster, the Flight of the Hippogriff, and you'll meet a startlingly convincing Buckbeak. Take a shady seat in the Owlery and you'll see dozens of owls roosting in the rafters, softly hooting and fluttering their feathers. On the wood under them: owl guano. And you can hear Moaning Myrtle chattering in the restrooms.
The only thing that meets the eye that is strikingly inauthentic is the horde of shorts-and-sandals-clad visitors, who would never pass sartorial muster at Hogwarts. (On the other hand, it's rarely 96 degrees in Scotland.) But the tween I saw wearing her new wand thrust through a belt loop of her white cutoffs like a pistol looked happy.
The piece de resistance comes as you reach the end of the street. Perched atop what looks like a rocky cliff several hundred feet tall, its gate flanked by pillars topped with winged boars, is the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in all its Gothic glory.
It's the place every fan wants to see (if not live in), and Universal has done a splendid job with it — and a smart one. "We consciously tried to get away from the queue experience," Woodbury says. They did. Instead of shuffling in a boring line for an hour or two (or more) while waiting to ride Forbidden Journey, visitors move through Hogwarts, not only winding through Professor Sprout's greenhouse (mind the mandrakes) and catching glimpses of Severus Snapes' office and the Mirror of Erised, but encountering some of the tale's beloved characters.
Among the most amazing effects in the castle are the talking portraits Rowling created in the books. They do not look like video screens or anything else you've ever seen. They look like oil paintings that instantly, persuasively come to life. When founder Salazar Slytherin bellows from his frame, "What are all these Muggles doing here?" — those Muggles jump.
Albus Dumbledore makes an appearance, as do Harry, Hermione and Ron Weasley; they're under the invisibility cloak, but keep an eye out in the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom. It's the one with the dragon skeleton hanging from the ceiling.
I didn't ride Forbidden Journey, but you can read Times staff writer Sean Daly's review of it on the Florida Travel channel at tampabay.com/things-to-do. Somehow I'm not sure four minutes of flying through a Quidditch game would beat that walk through Hogwarts.
Creating the park meant making choices, and every fan will wish for something that's not a part of Wizarding World. (I longed for the Weasley house myself.) And the emphasis is on the earlier parts of Harry's saga — the dark events of the last few books are not even hinted at, and the scary stuff is mild.
But even little kids like to be scared. In Dervish and Banges gift shop, a big brass cage holds The Monster Book of Monsters, the fierce fanged volume used as a textbook in Hogwarts' Care of Magical Creatures class.
The caged book twitched its furry pelt, fluttered its tentacles and growled as an angel-faced little girl, maybe 5 years old, intently poked a piece of paper at the bars to provoke it. She looked up, gave me a beaming smile and whispered, "It might bite us!"
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.